Sublime synthesis of performance and comfort, frugal fuel consumption at highway speeds, superb base stereo, rich interior materials.
Cramped rear seat, excessive wind noise, less-than-intuitive stereo and climate controls, polarized sunglasses wash out stereo display
It's hard to make a name for yourself when your big brother's always the center of attention. Just ask the 2008 BMW 328i sedan, which seems doomed to toil in relative obscurity while its steroidal 335i sibling gets all the press. That's a shame, because the 328i is an unequivocal pleasure to drive. It's also roughly $6,000 cheaper than a comparably equipped 335i.
Rather than dismissing the 328i as BMW's entry-level sport sedan, it's best to think of it as a 335i with less motor. These Bavarian brothers are essentially the same everywhere except under the hood. Is the 328i good enough to make you forget about the 335i's extra 70 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque? Not a chance. But it's still a world-class sport sedan in its own right, and its buttery-smooth 230-hp inline six-cylinder engine provides enough power for all but the most demanding drivers.
What really set our 328i tester apart was its optional sport package, which provided a magical mixture of handling and compliance. We were treated to the best of both worlds, with a ride that was never harsh, and cornering capabilities that were downright exhilarating. You'd never guess that our 328i had the sport package from its supple composure over bumps and ruts, yet it carves through the canyons at a pace that would put some purpose-built sports cars to shame. Few vehicles at any price can match the all-around excellence of this sport-tuned chassis.
Of course, the 328i's worth can't be measured by its performance alone. Sport-sedan shoppers want athletic driving dynamics in a practical package — and on the latter count the 328i comes up a little short. This is literally true of the backseat, where headroom and legroom are tight for even moderately tall passengers. The functionality of the stereo and climate controls also leaves something to be desired, and while interior materials are generally top-notch, storage nooks for cell phones and such are few and far between.
If you love to drive, though, the sport package-equipped 328i has no equal in this segment. The only question is whether it's worth ponying up the extra cash for a 335i. That's not for us to judge, but we will say this: We wouldn't blame anyone for pocketing an extra $6 grand along with the keys to a 328i.
The rear-wheel-drive 2008 BMW 328i is propelled by a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine generating a velvety 230 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. Our test car was equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission, which has an endearingly light and springy feel through the gates and is paired with a user-friendly, low-effort clutch. We recorded a brisk 0-60-mph sprint of 6.4 seconds en route to a quarter-mile time of 14.6 seconds at 94.7 mph.
It's on twisty two-lane roads that the sport-packaged 328i really comes into its own. The car is simply a peerless handler among compact sport sedans, from its ultra-communicative and perfectly weighted steering to its supremely balanced and unruffled character in tight corners. Weighing in at 3,424 pounds — nearly 200 pounds lighter than a comparably equipped 335i — our 328i felt, if anything, a smidge more tossable than its turbocharged counterpart. At the track, the 328i snaked through the slalom cones at 68.5 mph, a few tenths quicker than a 335i sedan we tested recently, and braked from 60 mph to zero in 110 feet, 6 feet shorter than that 335i's best stop.
Happily, the 328i's outstanding all-around performance doesn't come at the expense of efficiency. We averaged a respectable 22.5 miles per gallon over 1,030 miles of mostly enthusiastic driving, against EPA estimates of 18 mpg city, 28 highway and 21 combined. Our 328i even managed 31.2 mpg during a 213-mile freeway slog — frugal enough to give some four-cylinder econoboxes a run for their money.
Wind noise in our 328i was surprisingly noticeable around the windshield and A-pillars; furthermore, excessive turbulence with the sunroof open made al fresco motoring unpleasant above 50 mph. Otherwise, the 328i's driving environment is beyond reproach. Our tester's sublimely comfortable power sport seats coddled drivers of all statures while also providing excellent lateral support during spirited maneuvers. Pedal placement is spot-on, and the sporty small-diameter steering wheel is pleasingly contoured. We also like that the center stack is slightly canted toward the driver, putting all controls within easy reach.
Considerably less impressive is the 328i's backseat, which is only suitable for adults of average height or under. Mainstream economy sedans offer more head- and legroom in back than this premium four-door, and among competing compact sport sedans, only the Lexus IS 250 is less hospitable. The rear outboard seats are nicely shaped, however, so those who do fit will likely enjoy the ride. Moreover, materials quality throughout the cabin is excellent, with abundant soft-touch surfaces complementing the leather upholstery and brushed aluminum trim.
In typical BMW fashion, the analog gauges are a model of simplicity, though the real-time analog fuel economy gauge is a bit gimmicky. Unfortunately, the stereo and climate controls are anything but simple — the radio is operated via a series of identical-looking buttons, and in another nod to BMW tradition, the only way to turn off the climate control system is to press and hold the fan-speed "down" button or tap it repeatedly. To make matters worse, we found that the stereo display becomes illegible when viewed through polarized sunglasses. At least we didn't have to contend with iDrive, though there's no way around it if you want the navigation system.
On the bright side, the base stereo absolutely cranks. We could have sworn it was an upgraded unit until we checked the window sticker and saw that a 10-speaker sound system with two subwoofers comes standard on every 328i. This system remains distortion- and rattle-free at any volume, even with the wonderfully warm and punchy bass turned all the way up. We just wish that a CD changer were standard instead of the anachronistic single-CD player.
We can also report that the 2008 BMW 328i received a passing grade in our real-world usability tests, swallowing our standard suitcase and golf bag with ease and proving just roomy enough in back to accommodate a child safety seat. However, golf bags containing longer-shafted drivers must be carefully maneuvered through the relatively narrow trunk opening, and child-seat installation may require front passengers to pull their seats forward a bit.
Design/Fit and Finish
BMW stylists have come under fire in recent years for tinkering with a design language that many consider timeless. Thankfully, the 3 Series' 2006 redesign was for the most part tastefully done, preserving the car's traditional clipped front overhang and taut proportions. Our biggest beef with the 328i's appearance concerns the sport package's nondescript 17-inch wheels, which aren't up to the standards set by the car's performance — we'd like to see something closer to the striking 18-inch rims that come with the 335i's Sport package. Fit and finish was flawless on our tester, with tight panel gaps and nary a creak or rattle to be heard.
Who should consider this vehicle
At our test car's $41,550 sticker, no one. For a couple thousand less you could get a base 335i. But if you pare down the options to just one — the $1,700 Sport package — you can enjoy every ounce of our tester's performance, as well as standard features like a sunroof and that superb sound system, for about $35,000. At that price, the 2008 BMW 328i almost seems like a bargain for the driving enthusiast who needs four doors. However, those who prefer feature content to dynamic excellence may find competing models more satisfying.